The exodus of Nagorno Karabakh
Article and video by Daniele Bellocchio
Escape with No Return
An exodus of thousands of citizens and houses set on fire so as not to leave the memories of a lifetime to the winners of the conflict: these are the images that, best of all, portrayed the flight of almost 100,00 people from Nagorno Karabakh a few days before the signing of the ceasefire.
In early November the front was getting closer and closer to Stepanakert. The city of Shushi, only 8 kilometers from the capital, was under siege and in the hours before the truce, most of the citizens of Artsakh abandoned their homes and fled to Armenia along the Lachin corridor.
”We were in the car, stuck. There were cars and vans everywhere: in front of us, behind us, to the sides, we were surrounded. There were so many vehicles that a queue a mile long had formed.’
This is how EVN Report journalist Roubina Margossian who has reported the conflict in Karabakh since the early stages of the war, recalls the moment that became an iconic representation of the humanitarian tragedy suffered by Karabakh. ”The most impressive thing was to see the columns of smoke rising from the houses that people were setting fire to. It was absolutely shocking. Not one house, not two, but dozens of houses and farms burning, all along the road from Karabakh to Armenia. Men and women were setting fire to their homes so as to leave nothing to Azerbaijani soldiers. A moment that left me speechless, an extreme gesture which is difficult to comment on: to set fire to one’s most precious belonging, to the very place where one’s memories are preserved, one’s life, to prevent anybody from violating and insulting the sacredness of one’s past, of one’s history. It is an extremely painful act which more than any other makes us understand the absurdity and despair that wars provoke”.
A road through the Armenian countryside today leads from Yerevan to Aparan where Volodia Tadevosyan lives. He is a citizen of the Karvachar region, one of the districts that passed under Azerbaijani control when hostilities ended. And before abandoning forever the land where he grew up and lived, he carried out the final act of burning down his house and the memories of a lifetime. ”Where did I find the courage to throw gasoline on the walls of my house and then set everything on fire? From the anger inside me and the fact that it was the only thing I could do to be able to live with dignity again.’
Volodia’s words are powerful, granitic and pungent. He goes on to explain: ”The house I lived in had been built generation after generation by my grandfather, my father and myself. Day after day, stone after stone. That house wasn’t simply built of walls, but also of the sweat, the blood, the sacrifices and the history of an entire family. We had a vegetable garden, bees, a small piece of land that we all worked together on… Could I accept that soldiers would desecrate that house, take triumphant photos and then smear and destroy everything? Could I accept and allow all this? No, of course not. Setting fire to my house was extremely painful, but if I hadn’t, someone could have violated my house and my parents’ memory, and that would have been much worse than the flames and I, faced with something like that, would have lost all dignity.’
That of Volodia’s family, is a present written in the distant past. Everything seems to have been buried forever under a pile of ash and rubble, and the future is a jumble of unknowns and unanswered questions. Alyona and Gagik, the mother and father of Maria and Lyova aged 7 and 5 also live the same drama of precariousness and fear.
The family, originally from Hadrut was forced to flee to Armenia due to the war and now live as displaced people in Masis. The parents were both teachers; today the mother is a hairdresser and the father is unemployed, but what worries the couple the most, much more than the economic precariousness and having seen all their efforts and sacrifices shattered, is the future of their children.
”My daughter, Maria, one day did an internet search and saw a video of Azerbaijani soldiers entering our village. She saw the images of the destroyed house and started to cry hysterically, I couldn’t stop her,’ Alyona shares with us and adds: ”The war has influenced the children. Although they do not have a full understanding of what happened, they have been marked by the conflict. And when they ask me who the Azerbaijanis are, I tell them they are people like us.
When my daughter asks me why they broke her bike I tell her they didn’t break it, they were just playing and that when we get home she’ll find an even better one. My husband and I have so many doubts and fears for our children. What will their future be?